You, Me and Us at our Passover Table

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 27 – “Philanthropy and Jewish Peoplehood”- published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Michael Lawrence 

Our Jewish world and the wider global community is challenged greatly and influenced so considerably by intrusive and unforgiving political, religious and social discourse. 


In a couple of weeks from now, 97% of Israelis will join a Pesach night seder[1] and at least 70% of American Jews will participate in their own retelling of one of Judaism’s foundation stories and experiences.[2] Tradition holds that as we read from the Haggadah we are to imagine ourselves being rescued from centuries-painful slavery and fleeing Egypt on an unknown path toward nation building and a promised land. 

And as we do so we are fulfilling that age-old special duty – to share the story of our people with our children and our children’s children. “I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8) 

As we look forward again to singing Ma Nishtana in good spirits and then witness the timeless Q & A workshop going on with the Good, Wicked, Simple and Does Not Know How To Ask sons, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks treats us to an examination of the nature of the “wicked” son and can help us to understand why the Haggadah throughout the generations has pigeonholed him as such.[3]

What is it about this person that has everyone upset? Why is it said that if he had been there in Egypt, he would not have been saved? This appears to be in direct contrast with that mitzvah to share the story of Pesach and exodus with your children. All children. 

How careful we always are about the way we ask questions. “What does this ceremony mean to you”? says this son. Suddenly this is not about his story, but the story of the other. The others. 

This is a person (albeit a child) who makes statements disguised as questions of curiosity but points the finger across the table at those who are in fact on a well-meaning journey that follows a resilient ancient people. Even today, we are drawn to sharing the story of hope, redemption, rescue, renewal and nationhood with the next generation. 

The year is 2020 and we find ourselves in an election year for the United States, a Brexit and rollercoaster campaign in the United Kingdom just behind us, a third election in Israel in just eleven months and unpleasant coalition negotiations to come. Bitter exchanges, cruel accusations, nasty displays by “leaders” across the globe setting the tone for our modern societies and our children with their curious eyes, ears and access to information and media on an unprecedented scale. 

In these times we are pulled in to unkind, unhelpful, often unwanted and regularly irresolvable conflict within our families, communities and across the globe. Priorities and our positions on topics and needs of crucial importance are placed in line for (re) consideration. 

Our Jewish world and the wider global community is challenged greatly and influenced so considerably by intrusive and unforgiving political, religious and social discourse. As we look at our organizations and our families, at our strategic priorities, at the endless needs and the pull-on resources, the lessons from Pesach‘s wicked son can be instructive for us. 

From this central part of our Seder night, we should allow ourselves to identify new tips for navigating those old-new questions about with whom we collaborate, with whom we pool resources, share innovations and new approaches and then how we choose which populations, which Jewish causes and other communities we choose to help, reach out to, impact, seed and grow. 

Perhaps as Jews have done so often over the centuries, we can turn to Maimonidies (1138-1204) arguably the most famous Jewish scholar, physician, thinker, philosopher and legal scholar for guidance at this time. Indeed, Chief Rabbi Sacks does so and points to Maimonides’ criticism of one “who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression, but only holds aloof from the congregation of Israel, shows himself indifferent when they are in distress… such a person has no share in the world to come”. 

Rabbi Sacks takes this and makes a most valid point equally as helpful and instructive in our lives in the 21st century. He explains: 

“… no longer seeing oneself as part of the Jewish people, sharing its fate and hope or identifying with the plight of the Jewish people… That is what Maimonidies means by “separating oneself from the community”. 

“To be sure, not all Jews today obey Jewish law. But many who do not, nevertheless identify with Israel and the Jewish people. They plead its case. They support its cause. When Israel suffers, they too feel pain. They are implicated in the fate of the people.”

Summarizes Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
“that a Jew who does not say “You” when Jews or Israel are under attack, but “Me,” has made a fundamental affirmation – to be part of a people, sharing in its responsibilities, identifying with its hopes and fears, celebrations and griefs.”

So, Ma Nishtana? How might this Seder night be different from all other nights in another year of considerable “noise” that surrounds us? Perhaps we will internalize the message given us by a “wicked son.” In our collaborations, in our planning for 2020 and beyond, toward sustainable and tangible impact, we will search for the partner and the beneficiary who speak of “me” as part of “us” and not of “you” when partaking in Q & A and the collision of ideas that have fragmented and reset the navigation systems in our communities. 

And yet perhaps we cannot expect to create or strengthen peoplehood if we just say, “good riddance” to those who would write themselves out of our story. Perhaps in this new decade we should be looking to demonstrate a commitment to collectivity by awarding some grants precisely because other voices in the community believe the cause to be important – even though they lie beyond our own normal funding interests, guidelines or criteria. Fund things that actively engage people on the “uncomfortable fringes” – making a statement of embracing rather than condemnation. Fringes perhaps but not across red lines. 

In 2020, in the complex conversations in which we find ourselves and with re(new)ed dangers plenteous, whatever our area of funding, activity or intervention, we could do worse and gain much by asking whether and how our grants, programs and projects draw Jews closer together and exhibit elements that advance unity. 

Michael Lawrence is Chief Development Officer and Israel Office Director for Financial Resource Development at The Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem. 

[1] A Jewish People Policy Institute survey of 3,000 respondents in 2018.

[2] From a 2013 Pew Research Center study.

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his essay” The Covenant of Fate”in Covenant & Conversation (Exodus: The Book of Redemption)

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